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Fitness trackers are wrongly sending people to doctors, report warns

Hypochondriacs whose fears are fuelled by data from their fitness tracker or smartwatch are putting extra strain on the NHS warns a new report.

Essential readingTop fitness trackers and health gadgets

The wait to see a GP in the United Kingdom is already bad, but it could become even worse. A report from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AOMRC) on the impact of AI and tech in the health system warns of added pressure coming in the form of people imagining they are ill due to misinterpreting information.

This is typically because they’ve spotted something that seems off in the data churned out by their Fitbit, Garmin or Apple Watch. The same applies to health data dished out by smartphone apps which might wrongly suggest illness.

Heart rates in particular seem to be a cause of concern. Doctors from the AOMRC said they’ve had multiple worried patients booking up appointments. For example if they suspected their heart beat was too slow or too fast, when in reality it was perfectly normal. Visits like this have the potential to overwhelm the NHS, the report warns.

“Doctors have always welcomed technological advance,” Chairman of the academy Carrie MacEwan said.

“But what this report shows clearly is that we must manage the way it is introduced with as much care as we would with any other medical breakthrough”.

The trend is particularly worrying as it comes amid Britain’s GP crisis. Figures released last month show that practice list sizes have ballooned by almost 50% since 2014. Nearly 60 million patients were registered across 7,017 GP practices in December 2018, some of which are struggling to cope due to staff shortages.

“Some say AI is going to provide instant relief to many of the pressures healthcare systems across the world are facing, others claim AI is little more than snake oil and can never replace human delivered care,” added MacEwen.

“The key theme that leaps from almost every page of this report is the tension between the tech mantra, ‘move fast and break things’ and principle enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, ‘First, do no harm.’

“This apparent dichotomy is one that must be addressed if we are all to truly benefit from AI.”

Released a few months ago, Apple’s Series 4 watch comes with a built-in ECG sensor. Furthermore, the timepiece warns of unusually high or low heart rate, and will do intermittent analysis of heart rhythms and alert if it suspects atrial fibrillation. Withings is also coming out with a few ECG enabled devices this year, including a smartwatch and a blood pressure monitor.

And this is a big deal, assuming the sensors do not throw up many false positives! If that ends up being the case, the potential costs could outweigh the benefits. Apple has received clearance from the FDA for ECG measurements, the first of its kind. Despite this, the company has thrown out a warning.

“The ECG app is intended for over-the-counter (OTC) use. The ECG data displayed by the ECG app is intended for informational use only. The user is not intended to interpret or take clinical action based on the device output without consultation of a qualified healthcare professional. The ECG waveform is meant to supplement rhythm classification for the purposes of discriminating AFib from normal sinus rhythm and not intended to replace traditional methods of diagnosis or treatment.”

In our view anything that makes people health conscious has to be a good thing. Despite occasionally having spurious readings, activity trackers and smartwatches have helped countless people lose weight and improve their fitness. So sure, pay attention to the data. But don’t make the mistake of misinterpreting the device on your wrist as a medical tool, when in fact it is not.

You can view the AOMRC report in full on this link.

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